LACEY TOWNSHIP - The Oyster Creek nuclear power plant will use an age-old method to clean up a radioactive water spill: For this plant and others like it, the solution to pollution is dilution.

Oyster Creek will soon begin pumping 25 to 50 gallons per minute from the Cape May and Cohansey aquifers to remove water contaminated with the radioactive material tritium. That amount is a trickle compared with the 115,000 to 460,000 gallons per minute that flows through the Ocean County plant to cool its radioactive core, owner Exelon Corp. said.

Exelon discovered on April 15, 2009, that an estimated 180,000 gallons of tritium-laced water had leaked from a pipe, seeping beneath the ground into two aquifers that supply drinking water to more than 1 million New Jersey residents.

The plume poses no immediate threat to any residents or sources of either public or private drinking water, the company says. But the state is forcing Exelon to address the pollution immediately.

The company will use the contaminated water in the plant's extensive cooling systems before discharging it with a flood of cooling water into a canal leading to Barnegat Bay. This effectively reduces the tritium's radioactivity to background levels considered safe for drinking or human exposure, company spokesman David Benson said.

Environmental groups question how federal regulators allowed the contamination to reach supplies of drinking water in the first place.

Cancer risk

Tritium, a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, is a byproduct of nuclear fission. Like other radioactive materials, it is carcinogenic. It loses half of its nuclear potency every 12.3 years, its half-life.

The spill at Oyster Creek - the nation's oldest, continuously operating nuclear plant - measured as high as 6 million picocuries in some monitoring wells, about 300 times the level the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe for drinking water. Since then, some of the drawn samples have fallen to safe levels during the past year, even without human intervention.

"This water will be extensively diluted as it cycles through the plant. The amount of tritium released will be indiscernible from background radiation levels," Benson said. "It won't impact the discharge canal or the Barnegat Bay."

The process is essentially the same one PSEG Nuclear has employed for years to clean up a 2002 spill of tritium at the Salem nuclear power plant in Lower Alloways Creek Township, Salem County. That spill at one point measured 15 million picocuries, the highest radiation level ever recorded in a tritium spill in the United States.

"The groundwater is pumped from the ground, sampled and routed to routine plant radioactive-waste processing equipment," PSEG spokesman Joseph Delmar said.

The water is diluted in the flow of the plant's cooling water that eventually gets pumped into the Delaware Bay.

"In terms of drinking water, the aquifer is within a considerable distance where no contamination is occurring," Delmar said.

When it comes to tritium, there are few good cleanup options. Tritium cannot be separated from water as easily as oil or other pollutants since tritiated water essentially is water. Russian scientists are studying a process called isotopic exchange to remove the tritium created by nuclear plants.

In the meantime, plants can store concentrations of tritium in one place and wait for the radiation to decay naturally over decades, a solution that carries its own risks of spills and accidents. Or they can dilute the tritium by adding more water - a solution considered safer and more practical.

"It allows you to control the release and monitor it," Delmar said.

Lax controls

Tritium leaks have been identified in 33 of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants and escaped into the groundwater at 27 of them, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of power plants.

The NRC conducted a hearing this month on groundwater contamination from tritium. Several independent groups criticized the agency for lax oversight of tritium spills.

"My greater concern is that the NRC is so asleep at the switch," said Jim Riccio, a nuclear analyst for Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. "They're playing the game that these spills are not safety-significant. But they violate the terms of the plant operating licenses. They can't have an uncontrolled discharge of radiation."

Riccio said tritium spills will continue to haunt the nuclear industry as aging power plants spring more leaks.

"It's a big issue in New Jersey. And it's a big issue in Illinois, where neighbors of one plant are still getting deliveries of bottled water," Riccio said. "Tritium is not as dangerous as other nasty radiocative material like cesium or strontium. But let's not forget that tritium causes cancer."

In a report this year titled "Regulatory Roulette," the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists based in Washington, D.C., said the NRC was inconsistent in enforcing rules and imposing sanctions over spills.

"It's not that the NRC isn't capable of sanctioning. It's that sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," report author David Lochbaum said. "In my mind, I picture a wheel of misfortune the NRC spins. It seems random."

Lochbaum, who formerly worked at the Hope Creek nuclear plant in Salem County, said the agency favors a policy of encouraging voluntary compliance.

"They don't want to discourage owners from putting in monitoring wells to find leaks they might have," he said.

In New Jersey, this hands-off approach has had mixed results. Exelon Corp. installed more monitoring wells and drafted its remediation plan only after the state Department of Environmental Protection imposed the Spill Act more than a year after the company first reported the leak to the NRC.

But since then, Exelon Corp. has invested $12 million to replace old pipes at Oyster Creek and elevate them above ground or place them in vaults to prevent future spills - or at least detect and contain them more quickly.

Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group from Tacoma, Md., said the example Oyster Creek is setting is a model for the industry. The NRC should force all power plants to do likewise, said Paul Gunter, director of reactor oversight for the group.

"These are not chocolate factories," Gunter said. "Once this radioactivity gets into the groundwater, it's elusive and has a cumulative effect on future generations."

Beyond Nuclear published a critique of the NRC's handling of groundwater contamination.

"The common theme is the NRC is basically deferring its regulatory responsibility to an industry that was caught covering up leaks," group spokesman Paul Gunter said. "You don't give the cheating class a take-home exam."

Leaks ‘unacceptable'

Industry officials dismiss any suggestion that NRC oversight is not tight enough.

"The nuclear industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States," Oyster Creek's Benson said. "We are under constant scrutiny. They have two resident inspectors who are here on site and can look at anything at any time."

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency in 2000 began addressing nuclear safety based less on imposing fines and penalties and more on minimizing health and safety risks.

To that end, the agency considers the risk a spill poses to workers and the public in prioritizing action. In the Oyster Creek case, there was little exposure risk since the plume had not migrated off-site, and estimates said it would not do so for many years.

"We didn't see any risk that the contamination would affect the public," Sheehan said. "To say we have not applied a high degree of scrutiny on this would not be accurate."

The industry voluntarily agreed to develop plans by next June detailing how nuclear plants will prevent future spills by inspecting the miles of underground pipes that carry tritium. And Sheehan said some spills were only detected because plants took voluntary precautions to install new monitoring wells that were not required by federal law.

Sheehan said Exelon - which owns more nuclear power plants than any other company in America - plans to use Oyster Creek as a model for its other plants by move all piping aboveground or in concrete vaults to prevent leaks.

"Tritium leaks are unacceptable," Benson said. "It's our responsibility and obligation to address that."

Lacey Township Mayor Gary Quinn said he is confident in the oversight provided by the NRC and the state.

"We went through the whole relicensing process with the NRC and the plant. Certainly, we have the utmost confidence they're on top of this," he said.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7247